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Female leaders face same old questions

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra

How about we rename The Today Show the Yesterday Show since host Matt Lauer asks questions from 1953?

Isn’t what Lauer asked GM CEO Mary Barra about whether she’ll do "well" at being simultaneously an executive and a mom about, oh, 30 years past its sell-by date?

Today, haven’t we’ve stopped asking whether Hillary Clinton can be a good Nana as well as lead the free world? Today, haven’t we stopped filling the teleprompter with queries regarding whether Senator Elizabeth Warren makes her own pie crusts from scratch or is reduced, out of desperation, to using pre-made? Today, haven’t we decided that girls can be firefighters, astronauts and soldiers without asking what happens if they get their periods — or if they don’t?

Asking the head of General Motors whether she can be a good mommy and do her job effectively (not to mention asking her whether she got the position because she’s a woman and could bring a "softer face" to the company’s image) is like asking a girl whether she can be both smart and pretty. It’s a false dichotomy — a trick and a con.

These are not questions we ask in 2014 without expecting the audience to gasp, laugh and treat the interviewer with contempt. The fact that days later, Lauer’s female producer comes out and giggles, "Oopsy, it was us silly girls who forced poor Matt to ask that question" makes it even more ridiculous.

In no way does it mitigate Lauer’s exchange with Barra; instead it exacerbates our irritation while undermining Lauer’s credibility.

Look, women have been working double shifts for lousy wages, cleaning airport toilets, stocking shelves in dirty warehouses, serving bad coffee at fast-food restaurants and cleaning up the mess of the world in hotel rooms, bars and office buildings without being asked if they can do their jobs effectively and be good mothers. It’s assumed that a woman in such a position will simply be the best mother she can.

This, indeed, has always been assumed of men — that they will work hard because they have to and that they will be the best parents possible. In this way, underprivileged women and privileged men are oddly linked: the world declares their primary function in life is to bring home the bacon and they are judged on their ability to earn.

When it comes to women in positions of professional leadership however, the ground suddenly shifts. "They never asked whether you could be a good nurse and good mother," said a friend who entered medical school at 36; "They only asked whether you could be a good doctor and a good mother."

Lauer is trotting out a very old argument: Can a woman be anything in addition to being a woman? Published in 1938, mystery writer Dorothy Sayers’ still trenchant essay Are Women Human? examines what it would be like if men were always positioned in terms of their domestic and sexual roles.

Sayers wonders what it would be like for a man "If he gave an interview to a reporter, or performed any unusual exploit, he would find it recorded in such terms as these: ‘Professor Bract, although a distinguished botanist, is not in any way an unmanly man. He has, in fact, a wife and seven children. Tall and burly, the hands with which he handles his delicate specimens are as gnarled and powerful as those of a Canadian lumberjack.’"

What do they expect women to say when interviewers ask these questions, anyhow? Is there a secret wish that the women will look into the camera and announce, "Gee, I never thought about it. Guess I’ll just reabsorb my offspring into my body and rebirth them when it’s more convenient, like when I can cash in my stock options"; or maybe, "I never much liked being a mom anyhow, Matt; I’m putting them up for auction"; or do we secretly long to hear, "I am going to make my husband raise them, plus I’m going to make him start wearing my slips?"

When faced with inappropriate questions, perhaps we should all say, "I’ll forgive you for asking me that if you forgive me for not answering."

Only then we can get down to business and talk about what’s important today.

 

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for The Hartford Courant.

 

—The Hartford Courant

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